Consider the hummingbird: a reading and writing exercise

Today I met with Karma, an MIT employee and adult student whom I tutor in English once a week through a pilot program. We have a grammar workbook that we are going through rather doggedly, and we like to break up the formal exercise with reading, writing, and speaking activities.


Last week we read out loud together one of my favorite short essays, “Joyas Volardores,” by Brian Doyle (The American Scholar, Autumn 2004). Read the full text here: link. It is about the hummingbird, and more. The essay is full of beautiful facts and therefore new vocabulary, so it is suitable for an ESL student. There is also a curious passage about the blue whale and a meditation on the human heart. There is much to puzzle over.

Today, we did some free writing based on the nature of the essay (i.e., facts lead you to ideas and even strong emotion) and its first sentence:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.

I proposed to Karma that we generate more concrete nouns, in place of “hummingbird,” for things we had knowledge about that could be described.

Consider the __________ for a long moment.

microwave oven
maple tree
Bobcat (small truck)
… and so on

I suggested that we each take the first sentence, put in a concrete noun of our own choosing, and free write from there, trying to emulate some of Doyle’s declarative style and building paragraphs on sentences with the simple subject/verb structure, which is used lavishly in the essay.

We wrote for 15 minutes. We read aloud to each other the first and last sentences of what we had written, to see how far our ideas had come. The noun Karma had chosen was “computer,” and the one I had chosen was “kitchen.”

I wrote a lot in 15 minutes, yet felt unhurried the entire time. (See below the jump for the full text of my free write.) I really was following my thoughts. Karma wrote less than me yet seemed contented also. This is a good way to get writers to excavate what they know from experience and observation; this exercise could be followed up with a research assignment to start to develop material from the free write into an essay.

I noticed, when Karma read it aloud, that his last sentence has the word “unimaginable” in it. A word in my last sentence is “unconscious.” We seemed both to have traveled from concreteness to the cerebral. To get to an idea is the goal.

What will we do with what we wrote? As we parted, I told Karma there is no real homework, but that I hoped he would think about his last sentence, and I will think about mine. We will start there next week.

Keep reading for my free writing…

Continue reading

Leaves of insight, before they disappear

6130889443_74c365a02b_b Here are three quotations from my reading over the past few weeks. Each has something to do with writing, even when it is not about writing.

In this profile of Dr. Steven Zeitels (“Giving Voice,” John Calopinto, New Yorker, March 4), who is the surgeon who saved Adele’s voice, another patient, Scott Flaherty, “an operatic tenor… working as a teacher,” describes his motivation for undergoing risky surgery to restore his singing voice:

He explained [to Colapinto] why teaching was no longer satisfying. “I’ve grown tired of just talking about it,” he said. “I mean, when you sing you’re giving voice to your soul.”

Teaching singing to singing parallels the relationship of teaching writing to writing. It’s not enough to talk about or comment on. And yet that seems to be mostly what there is time for. This was my mournful state of mind in the weeks leading up to Spring Break.

The playwright Annie Baker (“Just Saying,” Nathan Heller, New Yorker, February 25) also teaches in the graduate playwriting program at NYU. In his profile of her, Heller follows Baker and her playwriting students into the basement of a Washington Square bar, where they discuss the pressure to outline screenplays. Baker is wearied by them and negotiates her contracts to avoid outlining. She says

“I feel like it’s the most dangerous — I actually feel like Hollywood hurts itself when everybody outlines screenplays. And then it trickles down to grad writing programs. Like, I’m willing to sit around for hours to talk about what the screenplay’s going to be, and talk about ideas, and doodle diagrams on dry-erase boards, but I just won’t…. Because by the time I finish the outline, it’s dead.”

Talking and drawing can be explorative and generative when it comes to creative writing. But outlining: a killer. Too much left brain.

Piano player Jason Moran (“Jazz Hands,” Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker, March 11) lives in New York but teaches once a month at the New Conservatory of Music in Boston. In tutoring Jiri Nedoma, who played his own composition once hesitantly and again with more sureness, Moran directed him to play it again, changing “the whole idea of the song”:

“Make it entirely different. Could you play it in stride piano?” […] Put different factors into the equation. Play it backward. Upside down. Your left hand might use something 1940 and your right hand is 2000, and what you find becomes part of your vocabulary.”

Nedoma played it again: “more delicate,” with richer chords. “He ended with a series of rising notes.”

Moran responded

“What you played at the every end, that’s where you should start… It’s almost like you played all that prelude just to find that little bit.”

Play, play, play. Mess it up. Experiment in unlikely ways. Often, you discover what you’re writing about at the very end — that’s what we tell students. It seems like this is true in other kinds of composition. What is found, at the end, becomes the new start. Not everyone, though, will have the perseverance to revisit one’s own work with the eyes of new discovery.

Image, “A Sense of Direction,” by Constanza on Flickr via a Creative Commons license

Look beyond the self on New Year’s Day

My resolutions are usually about aiming for personal goals or eliminating personal deficits.

What if our resolutions were more focused on our interactions with others, not as a way to get but to give?

The writer David Rakoff (b. 1964) died in 2012 from cancer. In its year-end feature on notable deaths of the year, “The Lives They Lived,” the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a letter that Rakoff’s friend Ariel Kaminer had written, thanking him for important lessons. They are ones to live by:

  1. Don’t trade up.
  2. It’s better in the long run to be kind.
  3. Be grateful and humble and mean it.

Read the full version of the letter, and a fuller description of each axiom, here: link.

P.S. Of course I still have a personal resolution or two and will publish them later.

If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via

Bounty of writers’ insights

Sweet autumn clematis (link) reaches its full beauty in early September and then lasts. I have a few spots of it in the yard — over an arbor in the front, along both sides of the chimney, and climbing up the neighbor’s fence — and this summer it exceeded its usual proliferation while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, it seemed to explode into my attention. One day I said to a member of my editorial staff, Grace Guterman, “Please, when you have a moment, go out in the yard and take some photos for me!” I wanted to preserve the lushness. She did.

Also this month I have noticed in the news a proliferation of commentary from writers on writing that surprised me in some way. So that I don’t lose these good finds, I’m going to catalog and excerpt below the three that made the greatest impression on me.

1. Brian Martin recommends that writers train like athletes. Excerpts from his article in Tomorrow’s Professor:

Write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.

Coaches expect their athletes – swimmers, runners and so forth – to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.

So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.

What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.

Most academics learn binge-writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Binging becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300-page thesis requires planning and sustained work. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Mary Oliver and Sound

This is the third in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

on the Provincetown shore, 2010

Words have more than meaning.

Words have sound, and how words sound affect the quality of something written.

For example, you could use either the word “moist” or “damp” to describe the armpits of a character’s shirt; the meaning — slightly wet — is about the same. And yet the sound of moist, which causes a pressing together of lips to create the mm, a pursing to form the oy, and then a sinister baring of teeth for the soft and hard st, evokes more disgust than the simple, matter-of-fact damp with its softer consonants.

D and p, in fact, are mutes, and m is a liquid. These are terms for types of consonants, grouped into what Mary Oliver calls “families of sounds” in A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994).

Sounds of words matter — Oliver compares the nouns stone and rock and the commands “Hush!” and “Please be quiet!” — because, as she writes, “there is, or can be, a correlation between the meaning, connotation, and actual sound of the word.”

I love this book for its clarity, simplicity, and helpfulness. At different times in my life, especially my teens and mid-30s, I have had a great impulse to read and write poetry,  with scant formal training in it, and by that I mean no college or grad school poetry workshops. I did, as an adult, take a few classes in poetry through the Brookline Center for Adult Education, where I learned and wrote a lot. (One doesn’t have to get credits to get educated, I say.)

It was around this time I encountered Oliver’s Poetry Handbook for the first time. Over the years, whether I’ve been writing poetry or not, it has been a helpful reference on sound, meter, rhyme, and line breaks. Even if you are more a poetry reader than writer, this book can help you understand how words and combinations of them can do their work.

On rhythm, she writes:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven. Continue reading

Summer chores: pleasure and pain

a fraction of my paint can hoard

In his essay, “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” E. B. White describes a move from the six-room Manhattan apartment he then shared with his wife. Even in 1957 people accumulated lots of stuff; it’s not just our epoch that is so acquisitive.  Contemplating my own home, which is fairly tidy, I feel about it the same way that White felt about his apartment:

A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smooth, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it is not necessary to desire things in order to acquire them. Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. […] This steady influx is not counterbalanced by any comparable outgo. Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in.

In the passage above where I’ve used a “[…]” as a placeholder for many sentences I’ve omitted, White lists the various things that have made their way into his life without his beckoning or actively acquiring them: books, oddities, gifts, memo books, a chip of wood sent to him by a reader, and “indestructible keepsakes” left behind by someone who has died. Later in the essay he writes about the special problem of trophies. (Note: While my post is not at all about teaching, I think it could be a fruitful assignment in a creative writing class to have students make a long list of items that could fill that “[…]” spot. Perhaps an idea for a poem would emerge.)

White and his wife had only six rooms in this apartment. In our house, we have seven rooms, plus more closets, and an attic and basement. Ah, therein lies the problem. A former grad school professor of mine once said to me, as she and her husband packed up a house to move in with a daughter upon their retirement: “People should not be allowed to know that they have attics and basements.” Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: William Zinsser and Voice

This is the second in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

In learning to write, there is always some unlearning to do. As writers, we build up our vocabularies and strategies in ways useful to us, but sometimes we get locked into those ways, and our writing becomes disembodied, unnatural, overwrought, show off-y. For writing to be good and worth reading, it has to fit the rhetorical situation and have a voice – a real one that could only come from that writer.

For me, the best definition and treatment of “voice,” as it applies to writing, comes from William Zinsser in his On Writing Well (1976): it is your “commodity as a writer” and conveys your “attitude toward language.” As writer, it is uniquely you.

Last week, some colleagues and I were reading stacks of essays by first-year students, as part of a writing assessment project at another local university. We read in mostly silence, but on our lunch and coffee breaks we would discuss features of student work that we liked or didn’t like. This is the writing teacher’s version of water-cooler gossip.

Uniformly we were irked by students using 50-cent words when plainer ones would do. For example, instead of using “posit” as a verb, which we saw used repeatedly in one essay, we prefer “state” or “argue” when quoting from an article or book or “say” when quoting from an interview.

The fancy word choices enraged one or two of my colleagues. I like a more straightforward style myself, but I understand why students write in what they believe to be a more formal register: to sound smart and to reach the teacher. (For a nice discussion of register, try this: link.)

Entering the academy and the conventions of academic writing is “like learning a new language,” I suggested to my colleagues. “It’s awkward at first, and it takes some mastery of the language before you use it naturally.” Before you get to the point of sounding like a native, there’s a lot of stilted use that doesn’t sound quite right to experienced ears.

I mostly practiced creative writing when I was in high school, and I was considered to be a fluent writer. When I got to college, however, and turned in my first academic paper – over which I had toiled devotedly and seriously – and got an F for a grade, with the comment, “This is not an analytical essay,” I realized I was unprepared for this new country called College and its strange customs. It was a new start and a tough one. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Natalie Goldberg and Bones

Goldberg, pen, and cake

Permission, sincere belief, and urgency: those are what Natalie Goldberg gives to readers of Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala Publications, Boston: 1986). This post is the first of Writer’s Dozen, a series on 13 texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer.

When I first encountered this book, in the graduate-level Teaching Writing course at Simmons College in the spring of 2003, I wondered why Professor Lowry Pei had assigned it. I cringed reading the first chapter, “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper,” and Goldberg’s hokey advice on choosing a “fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand” and purchasing “a cheap spiral notebook” over a “fancy” one so that “you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”

Let’s get to the point, I thought. The pen-and-paper suggestion seemed to be a detour and right at the beginning of the book when I was eager to get started. Clearly, this was for adults, and did they really need guidance in finding these most basic tools? If they do, they’re not going to get too far as writers. The snob in me was having her say in my internal dialogue.

Other chapters describe the timed “egoless” freewrite, writing as daily practice, distance of time, and some more fruitful topics. My position on Goldberg’s method started to soften, though, only when I read her command that we shouldn’t “identify too strongly with [our] work.” Words, when writing them, are “a great moment going through” the writer. Not being a Buddhist, as she is, I didn’t quite understand what she was getting at, but I found it a relief to think that I could write deeply and then move on to deeply writing something else, having left the old thing behind, done.

My initial resistance to Writing Down the Bones and the spiritual dimension to Goldberg’s approach had to do with my age (38), agnosticism, and experience writing and getting writing (for work and school) done. I didn’t think I necessarily needed anyone to tell me to write, write lots, write regularly. At first, I wondered if this book was intended purely for the beginner or the unsure, which I believed myself to be not at all.

But I quickly liked and was intrigued by the ideas of this writing professor, Lowry Pei, who has since become mentor, colleague, and friend, and I thought I’d go along with it and see how Goldberg fit into Pei’s approach. I was still keeping my emotional distance from Bones, not sure it applied to me. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: a new series

For several months, I’ve been keeping a list of texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer. Some are as long as a book and are explicitly about writing, in particular about practice, process, and style.  A few of my picks are essay length, and a few are about visual art, e.g., photography and ceramics, yet the authors articulate principles that, in my view, apply to writing.

This list of 13 of my fundamental texts will turn into a new series, Writer’s Dozen, starting with my next post. I am inspired in part by an essay I read recently, by Tom Bissell, called “Writing about Writing about Writing,” in which he takes stock of some staples in the how-to-write section of his local bookstore. It’s a balanced analysis; he finds reasons to both mock and praise the books he features. On my list and his only two overlap: ones by Annie Lamott and Natalie Goldberg. Bissell admits to varying personal interest in the other books he critiques, which include Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (his one writer’s-life-changing text), Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life.

I highly recommend Bissell’s essay. He has a tougher sensibility than I, but the heart of his argument is consistent with my motivation for choosing 13 personally influential texts and commenting on them in my upcoming series. About books about writing in general, Bissell asserts:

Most writers have thoughts about writing as an act, as a way of understanding oneself, or as a way of being, and they are often interesting. I have any number of thoughts about writing, all of which I find incomparably fascinating… A how-to-write book saved my life, then, but it did so existentially, not instructively. Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead, they are about how to live.

Indeed, my favorite books about writing or art are, in their way, about how to live.

First up: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a book that initially disturbed me and then later settled down and found its place in my habits.

Image, “Pencil Art,” by Nalini Prasana on Flickr via a creative commons license.